They are easy to spot in birch trees in the autumn and the winter: one or more branches with a large number of smaller side growth. The so-called Witches Broom. How these resulted from a wild growth of twigs and involved witches is the subject of the following tale whose roots certainly lie in medieval times.
There’s no way you can smell, see or hear them: witches look no different to any other ordinary women. They live among us without our realizing it. And by day they also behave like everyone else. They may be a touch more reserved and aren’t too keen about inviting people round for coffee, because they are naturally aware that they are different. They don’t dare, however, broadcast this fact, as many people have been conditioned into being scared of witches.
A witch’s life is sometimes a lonely one, as a result of this. That’s why they regularly meet up with other witches. To share knowledge of herbs and poisons; and simply for fun. Even if they may be different to ordinary people in some respects, witches are still ordinary humans and enjoy having fun.
To keep their secret to themselves, they only meet up at the dead of night when everyone else is asleep. As an extra measure they meet in places where nobody else comes, deep in the woods. These places are difficult to reach. However, they’ve an excellent solution for this problem: flying! They fly on a broomstick, the witch’s broomstick.
One warm autumn evening a few newcomers were initiated into the old lore of the witches. Afterwards there was a great party. Everyone joined in and the home-brewed drinks flowed in abundance. Too abundantly, however, because nearly all the witches got drunk and forgot the time. One younger witch who was pregnant and had not drunk suddenly looked up and saw the first signs of dawn in the sky and called out in fright: “Hurry now, we must get home, the sun’s coming up!”
The drunken witches jumped on their brooms and whooshed off towards home. Regrettably a little late. When the first rays of sunlight reached the horizon, they lost their magic powers and the brooms dropped downwards. Right in the middle of the wood, so that the brooms got tangled up as they fell in the branches of the trees. The witches managed to climb down and began tugging at their brooms wildly in an attempt to get them out. They then found themselves holding only the broom handle they’d twisted free. The broom’s twigs remained firmly lodged among the branches above.
The only solution was to walk home and think up a good story for their families to explain why they arrived home in the early hours of the morning covered in scratches and with shoes caked with mud…
To this day the brooms of these witches are still hanging in a number of trees. Their brooms don’t damage either the trees or human beings. In the same way, most witches wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Witches’ brooms occur mainly on birches, but occasionally on oaks, elms and prunus. In Germany they are called ‘Marenest’ – the Mare means nocturnal poltergeist or witch. If you see one in a tree it looks something like a bird’s nest. Closer up you can see that it’s a proliferation of small branches. Every tree and bush has so-called axillary buds, buds which are kept dormant by a substance in the tree, preventing them from opening. These dormant buds are necessary for when the end of a branch breaks off, for instance, during a storm. Then the blocking substance is de-activated and a bud grows into a twig. The fungus Taphrina betulina de-activates the blocking substance too, which results in several dormant buds being stimulated into producing numerous short twigs without the branch having broken off: the birth of a witch’s broom. This uncontrolled proliferation takes a lot of the tree’s energy, but otherwise it is not greatly affected by it. The fungus spreads throughout the entire tree via the sap flow. So you will see Witches’ Brooms often growing in several places on the same tree. The Witches’ Broom needs the tree as its source of nutrition and is in that sense a parasite.
© Els Baars, Natuurverhalen.nl